NFL Week 16 storylines: Playoff race going down to the wire
By the close of the NFL's business day late Monday night, after Atlanta's visit to New Orleans, 11 of 12 postseason spots could be claimed. There's high drama all over the league -- two NFC wild-card spots, one AFC wild-card spot, the NFC East, NFC South, AFC North and AFC West all remain undecided as we hit the Christmas weekend.
Here's a quick primer of this week's key storylines:
• Will the short week make a difference?
Moving the entire NFL weekend schedule (save for Sunday night and Monday night's games) up a day doesn't seem like a huge deal, but for those teams battling significant injuries, it could come into play. That's especially true for the Steelers, who had a Monday night game last week in San Francisco, and now potentially face the short turnaround without Ben Roethlisberger. If you see a few surprising scores early Saturday, the shortened weekly window could be why.
• Another huge day in the wild, wild AFC West
Despite losing to the Patriots last week, the Broncos still sit atop the AFC West, but they have plenty of company. Amazingly, with two weeks left to go, all four teams are still alive in the division race, with Oakland and San Diego each a game back of Denver.
The Broncos can wrap things up Saturday by winning in Buffalo and getting an Oakland loss at Kansas City. But if Denver falls, Oakland wins and San Diego pulls off a victory in Detroit, there could be a three-team tie at 8-7 -- with Kansas City one back at 7-8 -- heading into Week 17.
A matchup between the two New York teams is huge news regardless of when it happens, but with both the Giants and Jets in dogfights for their playoff lives, the intensity should be kicked up a notch this year. The "visiting" Giants are a game back of Dallas in the NFC East -- a win guarantees that New York's Week 17 home game with that Cowboys team will be a winner-takes-all battle for the NFC East; a loss coupled with a Cowboys win against Philadelphia would eliminate the Giants from playoff contention.
The Jets, meanwhile, currently sit in sixth position in the AFC. But Cincinnati has a matching 8-6 record (and a home game vs. Arizona), while Tennessee, Oakland and San Diego all lurk a game back.
• Can Detroit end its playoff drought?
There are a lot of scenarios that could get the Lions into the playoffs for the first time since 1999, but here's the simplest one: Beat San Diego on Saturday. Ford Field should be jumping as the host Lions look to secure their first postseason invite in more than a decade. They're in that position thanks to a dramatic come-from-behind win in Oakland last week. Another dangerous AFC West foe looms this Saturday, though, as suddenly-hot San Diego, with its terrific offense, comes to the Motor City desperate for a win of its own.
• It's true: Philadelphia still has a chance
The Eagles, for all their drama and disappointing performances this season, still have a shot at the NFC East title. Here's what it would take: Philly has to go 2-0 (at Dallas, vs. Washington), while the Giants must lose to the Jets, then beat Dallas in Week 17. That would put the Eagles, Giants and Cowboys all at 8-8 ... and send Philadelphia to the playoffs, by virtue of a tiebreaker edge. Of course, the dream could be dead by late Saturday afternoon when the Eagles kick off vs. Dallas -- if the Giants beat the Jets earlier in the day, it would be impossible for the three-way tie at 8-8 to occur.
• No Merry Christmas for Chicago
This isn't exactly what the Bears had in mind earlier this season when they looked at their Christmas night trip to Green Bay on the schedule. Way back at the start of the year, Chicago no doubt hoped this would be a division title-deciding clash. Instead, the Packers are one win (or one San Francisco loss) away from clinching home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, while the Bears are down a starting QB and starting RB and have lost four straight.
A loss Sunday would eliminate Chicago from playoff contention, which puts a lot of pressure on new starting quarterback Josh McCown. He's getting a chance to save the Bears' offense after several weeks of Caleb Hanie missteps.
The Saints' Week 10 win over the Falcons set the table for Monday night's scenario: If New Orleans beats Atlanta in a rematch, the Saints clinch the NFC South and stay alive for a first-round bye. Atlanta's on the verge of wrapping up its own playoff spot, but a loss in the Big Easy could leave the Falcons dealing with a pressure-packed Week 17. A New Orleans win also could bump Atlanta down in the NFC standings, to the No. 6 seed. If the Saints wind up as the No. 3, that slot is what they would draw in the wild-card round of the playoffs.